The need to blame someone (or at least something) is one of the unfortunate faces of anger: It runs from responsibility. Anger, by definition, externalizes. This kind of externalizing, blaming anger is what I am afraid some of us, as clinicians, experience with our anger management clients, particularly when we don’t see much in the way of progress. We get a bit frustrated; we feel thwarted. We don’t show this frustration, of course, but it is there, maybe along with the sense of emerging clinical impotence. We do our best, yet an occasional anger management case just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
We forget that anger management is hard clinical work. Working with easily angered folks can be quite stressful. In “real life”—that life outside our therapy rooms—no one, I repeat, no one wants anything to do with these trigger-happy folks. But we kind of forget that, expecting ourselves to roll with whatever comes through our clinical doors. Furthermore, to add to our frustration, anger management—at least, initially—seems like it ought to be pretty straightforward: So-and-so has a short fuse, so we need to lengthen it. We know how to do that, right?! Big clinical deal! Goals are simple; objectives are even simpler. With a variety of cognitive-behavioral goodies in our clinical toolbox, anger management seems like a clinical slam dunk. But often it isn’t. What initially seems like a clinical no-brainer can easily become a head-scratcher. Anger fools us with its misleading transparence.
So, frustrated and thwarted, we ourselves begin to quietly simmer, resenting the difficult client for not getting better. Whereas initially, we saw in our client a mind in trouble, we now start catching ourselves thinking that maybe so-and-so is just a plain ol’ uncaring jerk. That’s right: We begin to fall prey to what is known as fundamental attribution error (more about this later) with its paranoid and personalizing causal attributions. Yes, we too project— no saints among clinicians. And, we too personalize—no Buddhas among us. And we then burn out—no Energizer Bunnies among us either. Eventually, fresh out of intervention ideas, exhausted and plum out of empathy, we start kicking ourselves too. We are clinically stranded. And, frankly, even angry, at our clients, at ourselves. To avoid this kind of angry anger management, we need to rethink and rethink anger management.
Adapted from Anger Management Jumpstart: a 4-session Mindfulness Path to Compassion and Change (Somov, PESI 2013)
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Last reviewed: 21 Jan 2014